When Chinese whispers are unnerving
Red Army officers have checked into a hotel in Mutare. Why? ASH Smyth looks for an answer
Reports that a score of Chinese soldiers have been seen in Mutare, eastern Zimbabwe based, largely, on the testimony of hotel chambermaids might yet prove false. Chinese officials have denied that their troops are there, and the 'soldiers' in question could conceivably be private security for some Chinese business interest.
But in the context of recent civil unrest, reports of bi-hourly patrols alongside Zimbabwean security forces make that interpretation look rather optimistic. Security guards don't normally patrol the streets - even less so in 'regalia' - and they don't stay at the Holiday Inn.
One squad of Chinese officers ('pistols' are officer issue) doth not an invasion make. A detachment of special-operations advisers, though, could represent a rather bigger problem.
And the presence of the Red Army on the streets of any African nation would constitute one of the biggest crises of the decade, uniting the twin headaches of African bad-governance and Chinese foreign policy.
So what are the Chinese up to? Is the West being sent a message?
Hopefully not. To parry scrutiny of their own domestic problems, China's entire foreign policy in Africa especially is founded on principles of non-interference. Most Western diplomats don't like it, and many don't really believe it; hitherto, however, it has been unflinching and predictable.
But if the West decides to push China off the fence, there's no knowing which side they'll land. Zimbabwe is emphatically not the place to put this to the test.
It is too much to hope that the Olympic torch party have got lost on their lap of Africa. Instead we should take comfort in the fact that the Chinese presence in Mutare is so ostentatious. If they decide they mean business, the Red Army won't arrive in their No. 1's, nor walk down the main street. ·
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